Amid a nationwide BLM movement calling for the removal of statues and monuments that enshrine, even glorify, the genocidal, colonizing, enslaving, and imperialistic past of the United States, well-known BLM activist Shaun King tweeted that “The statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down” and in his next tweet adds: “All murals and stained glass windows of white Jesus, and his European mother, and their white friends should also come down. They are a gross form of white supremacy. Created as tools of oppression. Racist propaganda. They should all come down.” Predictably, a swirl of some positive and extremely negative responses, including death threats, ensued.
What has struck me as I follow the fallout of King’s response is the opinion shared by some, perhaps by many, that simply put, King is wrong. That he is equivocating when he conflates Sunday’s liturgical art with social realities outside the ecclesial walls. That we can, and in fact should, draw a clear line between the sacred art of “white Jesus” and the atrocities committed on this continent (and others) by whites against native and African folk (in the name of “white Jesus”). In brief, that there is no complicity between the representational modalities of sacred art and genocide, slavery, cultural supremacy, and systemic racism. This perspective is historically and theologically untenable.
I know and am friends with Addison Hodges Hart, author of “‘White Jesus’ and Shaun King,” published at Public Orthodoxy on June 26, 2020. And I should also note that I am in full agreement with Fr. Hart’s main thesis there: Notwithstanding the fact that the historical Yeshua of Nazareth, as a first century, Palestinian Jew—and therefore, of Semitic, Afro-Asiatic stock—was, in all likelihood, a deeply tanned or brown-skinned man (with facial features, hair texture, and bodily proportions probably as depicted on the Shroud of Turin), artistic images of a “white Jesus” are “good and harmless”—certainly as originally intended by their Western European (and European American immigrant) creators. Moreover, attacking them as necessarily racist undermines the Black Lives Matter movement, giving an excuse to those who want to label BLM and its efforts to secure racial justice and human rights for African Americans (and, by extension, for all), as “imbecilic and dangerous.” After all, Christianity has always been an iconophilic (“image-friendly”) religion. That is, even as Christianity proclaims the Incarnation of God in Christ Jesus from its beginnings 2,000 years ago, it has always favored spiritual and aesthetic expressions that awaken the “active imagination” (to use a term dear to Carl Jung) through vocal and instrumental music; architecture; and visual, textile, and performing arts.
Shaun King, civil rights activist and founder of Real Justice PAC, stirred up controversy this past week by tweeting that images of “white Jesus” should be torn down and trashed. “They are a form of white supremacy,” he opined. “Always have been. In the Bible, when the family of Jesus wanted to hide, and blend in, guess where they went? [sic] EGYPT! Not Denmark. Tear them down.” He followed this, er, trenchant observation with a follow-up tweet: “All murals and stained glass windows of white Jesus, and his European mother, and their white friends should also come down. They are a gross form white supremacy. [sic] Created as tools of oppression. White propaganda. They should all come down.”
Needless to say, there was backlash and King’s call to iconoclasm won relatively little support. Later still, King claimed that within the first twelve hours after his tweets, he received 20 death threats in reaction, proving (as he said) “his point.”
This fall, Fordham’s Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art opened a new exhibition entitled “Distant Relatives: Ancient Imagery of the Classical Pagan Past and Modern Byzantine Icons.” The exhibition features large mixed media collages by artist Joni Zavitsanos, whose work combines the traditional aspects of Byzantine Christian iconography with motifs of modern society. I had the opportunity to explore the exhibit in depth and speak with Zavitsanos about the exhibition. Initially, some viewers may be offended by the artist’s choice to use elements of traditional Byzantine iconography in modern creations. Yet, Zavitsanos explains that her work can be seen as a break from tradition because of her drastic modifications to longstanding pictorial motifs. While Zavitsanos makes her own artistic interventions, it is not her intention to undermine the authority of Orthodox Christian imagery.
Zavitsanos’s artwork is heavily influenced by Byzantine iconography. She learned about this pictorial tradition early, since her father, Diamantis Cassis, was a Greek Orthodox Iconographer or painter of icons in the Greek Orthodox tradition. Orthodox Christianity holds certain modes for representing Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other saints to be authoritative. Because of this, Orthodox icons feature a limited range of motifs leaving the iconographer with minimal room for individual interpretation. A Byzantine icon from the early centuries of Christianity can look much like one made today. The consistency of imagery invites viewers throughout time to understand the message that these icons are meant to communicate: the everlasting and the divine. Continue reading →